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Saturday, November 08, 2008


I figure that Cal Rogers was feeling pretty confident on the morning of Saturday, September 23, 1911,(but then Cal Rogers was always pretty confident) when he heard that James Ward had dropped out of the “Hearst Coast-to-Coast Race” after crashing yet again 5 miles outside of Addison, New York. Cal already knew that Bob Fowler, who had started out from San Francisco, had failed three times to get over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, finally cracking up near the summit, and reducing his Wright Flyer “B” to kindling and canvas. That left just himself, Cal Rogers, the six foot four inch adventurer from Pittsburg in the run for the $50,000.00 first prize. Of course, he still had to get to California himself. He was barely a tenth of the way to California now, and he had already crashed three times and he was already decorated with bandages for all the scrapes and scratches he had suffered in all those crashes. Part of the problem was that when Cal had taken off from Booklyn he learned to fly just four months before. He had less than 60 hours of flying experience. He knew nothing about navigation by air, and there was no one to teach him. The longest flight so far in the United States had been one from St. Louis to New York City, completed just a month before, by somebody else. In short, Cal was at the very edge of human experience in flight, both physically and mechanically.

The Wright engine of his “Vin Fiz Flyer" had no throttle. The engine was either on or off, at full power or at zero. A pilot had only one way to alter speed and that was to “advance the spark”, meaning to alter the instant in the compression cycle when the spark plug fired. In a modern internal combustion engine this is controlled by computer for each cylinder. By the 1920’s it would be done mechanically by a carburetor. But in the Wright engine it was done by physically moving the sparkplug a fraction of an inch into or out of the cylinder via a dial – by hand. The engines' designer, Charlie Taylor, had taken a leave of absence from the Wright workshop in Ohio to accompany the "Vin Fiz Flyer across the country. But this process of adjusting the spark plug had its own problems which would soon become evident to both Cal and Charlie. It took two days to repair the Vin Fiz after the crash at Middletown (on September 17), and Cal did not get back into the race until the twenty-first of September. His first leg that day was to be a hop to Hancock, New York, (40 miles east of Binghamton). But half way there Cal noticed his radiator had sprung a leak. He kept an eye on the precious fluid dripping from his engine and then, just as he was over the town “…plop! Out flew a defective spark plug” Making the plug adjustable had also made it prone to vibrating itself right out of the engine! Cal suddenly found himself heading for the ground. He managed to steer for an open field, pulling the "Vin Fiz's" nose up at just the last second. After the repair and the excitement, Cal continued on. But while making a normal landing at Binghamton, as Cal would later say, “…There was a snap of breaking timber and my right skid had gone". Again, there was nothing to do but wait for the his service train", the "Vin Fiz Special".It would prove to be a difficult two weeks, as California receded farther and farther into the distance and in time. The broken skid was easily replaced over night, from the supplies carried on board the “Vin Fiz Special”, the 3 car train that followed and led Cal across the countryside. It carried parts, aviation fuel, a rolling repair shop, Cal’s wife, Mable, his mother Maude (ne Rogers) Sweitzer, his chief mechanic Charley Tailor, his second mechanic, Charles (Wiggie) Wiggen, three assistants, assorted newspaper reporters and photographers. With such lavious support, Cal was airborne again on the morning of the twenty-second. But as he approached a landing at Elmira that afternoon he snagged telegraph wires and damaged the “Vin Fiz" yet again. More repairs were required. As Cal traversed the border lands between Pennsylvania and western New York State, he hit a patch of good weather and made up time, at least until he reached Salamanca, New York high up on the Allegheny River. Late that afternoon of September 24th , just after taking off from Salamanca, another spark plug vibrated its way out of the engine. But this time Cal coolly reached behind his back, grabbed the hot plug in his glove and held it in place as he made a perfect landing (with one hand) on the Allegheny Indian reservation outside of Red House, N.Y. Cal screwed the sparkplug firmly back in and with help of a couple of men, turned the plane around for take off. But he couldn’t work up enough speed and had to abort and try again. A second attempt also had to be aborted. Each time the two helpful locals tried to warn Cal that he was aiming at a barbed wire fence, which he evidently did see in the gathering dark. But either because he didn’t understand what they were saying (he was deaf,) or because he was in such a rush, Cal ignored their warnings and the third time proved to be the charm. Cal taxied directly into the barbed wire fench, ripping the fabric covering the wings to shreds, and wrapping the prickly wire around the frame. It would take two days of yet more work to free the “Vin Fiz”.

Cal was back in the air on September 27th , and had safe landings that day and the next, but on he 29th he was grounded by bad weather. Still, September 30th saw him break out of the Alleghenies and enter the flatlands of the old Middle West. The "Vin Fiz" covered 200 miles on September 30th . He would have gone further but a clogged fuel line forced him down late in the day near Akron, Ohio. Cal spent that night fending off curious cows who seemed determined to crush his fragile airplane under their big fat hooves. (Or maybe they were trying to catch a flight to someplace more accomidating to vegitarians.)

On Sunday, October first, Cal stopped at Mansfield and then Marion, Ohio, before being forced down by another clogged fuel line at Rivare, Indiana, just over the state line. Under threatening skies Cal cleared the fuel line and took off again, only to fly right into a thunderstorm, the first pilot to ever do so. As lightening snapped around his plane, Cal was the first pilot to experience downdrafts and wind shear, and as quickly as he could, Cal landed the "Vin Fiz" again, in the tiny town of Geneva. As soon as the weather cleared he flew on to Huntington, Indiana, where he was met by an enthusiastic crowd. And Cal was able to spend the night on board the train with his dear Mable. And his dear mother Maria.The next morning, October 2nd, the winds were still gusting and again Cal had a hard time working up speed on his 35 horsepower Wright four cylander engine. Just as he felt his skids leave the ground he realized he was heading for a crowd of people. He yanked the stick to the left, passed under telegraph wires, and bounced his left wing off a bump in the ground. Cal was thrown out of his seat and scrapped his forehead, the left wing of the “Vin Fizz” was crumpled and folded up. Cal was mostly uninjured. And the “lucky” bottle of soda dangling from the strut was unbroken, yet again. But it would take two days to repair the “Vin Fiz”, essentially its third complete rebuild since takeoff.

On October 4th Cal flew to Hammond, Indiana, where he landed just before 6 P.M., on a plowed field on the Jarnecke Farm. He slept that night in the comfort of the Majestic Hotel. But high winds kept him grounded for another two days.
Finally, in desperation, on the 7th, Cal loaded the “Vin Fiz” aboard his train and moved it to the village of Lansing, Illinois, where he found a fallow field with a wind break, which allowed him to take off again. (As his journey westward had not moved him closer to Chicago, technically he had not advanced his position in the race.)
Cal Rogers finally reached the air field in Cicero, on the westside of Chicago, on the afternoon of October 8th. This was near where, at the air show in Grant Park on the lake shore just two months before, Cal had made his public debut as a pilot. He now had less than three weeks left by the rules of the contest to fly the remaining 2,000 across the Mississippi and the western half of the Untied States, cross the Rocky Moountains and the Sierra and the deseret between. Cal Rogers was the only man still in the race, but he was running out of time. NEXT TIME; OLD MAN RIVER.
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Thursday, November 06, 2008


I would call it a good idea for an “Amazing Race”. There were three serious contestants and a $50,000 first place award, and yet nobody collected a dime in prize money: amazing. It was 1911. Flying was still brand new and the world’s first two pilots were still flying: Wilbur and Orville Wright. The third pilot was Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and he had died on September 17, 1908, in a crash that also badly injured Orville. The second pilot to die was Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame), in a 1910 crash. Considering there were only about 100 men (and one woman) with flying licenses in America in 1911, two was an appalling causality rate, bad enough to make you wonder why anybody would have wanted to try flying.
The world’s 49th licensed pilot was a shy, cocky, 6’4” thirty-something, cigar smoking, playboy and adrenaline freak with a hearing loss named Calbraith Perry Rogers. He was a romantic who favored action over words, as proven by the way he met his wife, 20 something Mabel Groves. He saw her drowning, jumped in, pulled her to safety and later married her, despite the hat. He approached flying with the same spontaneity. Having seen his first airplane on a visit to Dayton, Ohio, in June of 1911, Cal took the full Wright Brother’s flight course, all 90 minutes of it. Then he talked his mother Maria, into loaning him $5,000 so he could buy a Wright Model B Flyer “EX”; the "EX" was for experimental – which was a joke because every “aeroplane” was experimental in 1911. But Cal may also have been the origin of the phrase to “take a flyer”, because just two months later, in August, he entered his Wright Flyer in an air show in Chicago and took home third prize, worth $11,285. Not bad: Cal had been a pilot for 60 days and already he had made eleven grand. He suspected there might be money in this flying thing. In October of 1910 the Hearst newspaper chain had offered $50,000 to the first pilot to make it across the continent in 30 days or less. The offer was set to expire on October 10th , so with his self supplied confidence, Cal decided to shoot for it. What he needed, as any NASCAR driver can tell you, was a sponsor. He found his ‘sticker sucker’ in a new soft drink, “VIN FIZ”. Allegedly it was grape favored soda water but one critic noted that it tasted like “…a fine blend of river sludge and horse slop” With a product like that the Amour Meat Company, proud owners of Vin Fiz, were going to need a heck of an advertising campaign. Enter Cal and his flying bill board.
With a guarantee of $23,000 from Amour, which also provided a three car support train (complete with a repair car and a reservoir of spare parts, a motor car to track down where ever Cal had crashed, and sleeping car accommodations for Mable, Cal’s mother Maria, his cousin, his head mechanic Charlie Taylor, two other mechanics, two assistants and assorted reporters from the Hearst news service), Cal figured he had it all figured out. The first problem was that, before Cal even got airborne, his "Vin Fiz" was already in third place.First off, from Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, was motorcycle racer Bob Fowler. There were 10,000 cheering people there at 1:35 P.M., on September 11th to see Bob off. Like Cal, Bob was piloting a Wright “B” Flyer, except his sponsor was the Cole Motor Company, of Indianapolis, Indiana, and they had supplied him with one of their engines. It was more powerful than the Wright engine, but it was also 200 lbs heavier. Plus they were only paying Bob $7,500.00 for the whole trip. Making an average speed of about 55 miles an hour, Bob reached Sacramento in just under 2 hours, and after spending a couple of hours schmoozing with Governor Hiram Johnson, Bob flew on to Auburn; for a total distance on the first day of 126 miles. On September 12th he reached Alta, California, where he crashed into some trees. Bob was now out of the race until repair parts could be rushed out from Frisco.Second to start was James J. (Jimmy) Ward, pilot's license #52, and previously a jockey. He was flying a Curtis Model D. James took off from Governor’s Island in New York harbor on September 13th. He immediately got lost over New Jersey, and made only twenty miles before crash landing. Then he too had to wait for repairs. The basic tone of the entire race for everybody had thus been set right away; take off, crash, wait for repairs, take off, crash, wait for repairs, and repeat as necessary. It was going to be very hard to finish this race, let alone win it.Before starting himself, Cal Rogers tied a bottle Vin Fiz to one of his wing struts (white circle), “for luck”. For reality, he tied a pair of crutches to another strut. Before a paying crowd of 2,000, a chorus girl poured a bottle of grape soda over the landing skids and proclaimed, “I dub thee “Vin Fiz Flyer””. Cal actually called his plane “Betsy” but he recognized the value of naming fees even back then.
Cal took off from the race course at Sheepshead Bay, Long Island at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 17th. And if anybody noticed it was the third anniversary of the crash that had killed Lieutenant Selfridge, they were polite enough not to mention it.
After take off Cal buzzed Coney Island and dropped coupons for free Vin Fiz soda. Then he flew across Manhattan “…with its death-trap of tall buildings, ragged roofs and narrow streets”, as the breathless reporters reported breathlessly. Cal landed in Middleton, New York that night to a cheering crowd (reported as 10,000 – not to be bettered by San Francisco). He had made all of 84 miles that first day.That night the reporters claimed that Cal claimed he would be in Chicago in four days. But Cal was shy, because of his bad hearing, the byproduct of a scarlet fever attack in his childhood. So he didn't like talking to reporters because he often barely heard their questions. So the reporters just made up heroic quotes for Cal. They invented more heroic quotes for him the next morning when the "Vin Fiz" hit a tree and ended up in a chicken coop. The bottle of Vin Fiz was miraculaously undamaged but now it was Cal’s turn to wait for repairs.
The race was on!
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I believe Bob Fowler was confident on September 23rd , when he took off from Colfax, California, (alt. 3,306 feet) in the Sierra foothills. He certainly looks confident, doesn't he? His confidence was, however, seriously misplaced. At six thousand feet altitude up the Sierra Nevada mountains Bob hit headwinds that his 40 horsepower motor couldn’t overcome, and he was forced to return to Colfax.
That same day (September 23) found James Ward following the “iron compass”, as pilots referred to following railroad lines. In this case he was tracking the Erie Railroad westward out of Middletown, N.Y. James refueled as planned at Callicoon, N.Y.(above), at 10:05 A.M. He refueled again at Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and took off again at 2:15 P.M.Two hours later, after avoiding crowds at other landing fields, James touched down on a farm outside of Owego, N.Y. Here James hitched a ride into town, where he ate a quick dinner while a local mechanic refueled his plane. He wanted to make Corning, N.Y. before dark, so he hurried his take off. But as James Ward lifted into the air his engine coughed, his wheels snagged a fence and he was yanked to an abrupt halt. His lower left wing was bent, his wheels destroyed. James Ward was unhurt, physically, but it would take a crew from Curtiss Airplane almost two days to repair the damage. Back out in California, bright and early on the September 24th , Bob Fowler tried again to get over the Sierra. This time he got as high as 7,500 feet, as high as Emigrant Gap just below the Donner Pass, before the headwinds again forced him to retreat to Colfax.
On the 25th Bob reached 8,000 feet before running into those darn headwinds again. This time Bob decided to land at the Emigrant Gap, in order to get an early start the next day. But flying at high altitude was a skill not yet mastered by anyone, including Bob, and while turning around he plowed into the forest. They had to send out a search party to locate him, and when they did he had two broken wings and two broken propellers. Bob himself was somehow uninjured, but for the time being his intercontinental flight was… waiting for repairs, again.Back in Owego, the repaired James Ward’s Curitss airplane managed to limp into Corning and then on to the village of Addison, N.Y. (above) late on September 25th. He was now 300 miles and 10 long days out of New York City. At this rate it could take him the better part of a year to reach California. Anxious to make up for lost time, at 7:18 A.M. on the twenty-sixth, James took off from Addison. And about five miles west of town he crashed. He had to walk almost the entire way back to town. This was getting really hard.
To make it seem even harder, at a local hotel, Jimmy‘s wife, Maude Mae, overheard gamblers taking five-to-one odds that her husband would be dead before he reached Buffalo, New York. Now, as Buffalo was still 60 miles to the west, and at the rate James was making progress toward California he could have been outrun by a Conestoga wagon, and even though he was not actually planning on heading to Buffalo, Mable Mae figured it was still a pretty good bet he wasn't going to make it that far,...alive, she decided to be practical. She spoke to James that night, and after his long walk and his two crashes over the previous four days, Jimmy was inclined to agree with Mable. James’ manager announced his decision to drop out of the race to the press the next day.Later, Jimmy Ward would explain his problems in pragmatic terms. “…it was a plain case of a jinx” he said. And then he went on to prognosticate. “Rodgers is a mighty fine fellow, " said Jimmy, "and I wish him all kinds of luck, but he won't reach the coast within the specified time. To win that $50,000 he's got to complete his journey by Oct. 10. He can't do it. He'll get through all right, but not by that date.” Give this skill at foretelling the future I am surprised that James Ward seemed to have no inkling that just seven months later Maude Mae would have him arrested in Chatanooga and charged with bigamy. So did his powers of prophecy tell him that she would then file for an annulment of their marriage. She had discovered that James had never been legally divorced from his first wife. And I would have thought that James could have easily predicted she would find that out, eventually. And she did.TOMORROW: THE WINDY CITY
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